Andy Goldsworthy’s Red Clay Earth Day

Artists, Exhibits, In Brief

What’s a land artist to do when everyone gets stuck inside? For renowned sculptor Andy Goldsworthy, the solution was to put the land itself on public display–and what’s more, to show how the land connects us all.

With Earth Day around the corner and the precarious ecological situation that is Venice on full display this week, Goldsworthy stands out as an artist who early on understood how the climate crisis would divide our nation, and the world. With two concurrent exhibitions on display right now, Galerie Lelong & Co., is showing his Red Flags series that comments on U.S. political divisions, while his Firehouse at Haines Gallery in San Francisco draws attention to California’s catastrophic wildfires.

Goldsworthy is a bit unique in the support of his practice, having long worked with Mary Sabbatino, Vice President and Partner at Galerie Lelong & Co., and Haines Gallery principal Cheryl Haines to realize his vision. Goldsworthy creates site-specific commissions for institutions and collectors with his oversight on each aspect of the installation. As Sabbatino imparts, “Andy is present and working on every installation of his work and oftentimes he works on a project over a year’s time. This means that clients are often told the wait for even a site visit is two years."

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Installation views: Andy Goldsworthy, Red Flags, 2020, Galerie Lelong & Co., New York.

A project that originated at Frieze Sculpture 2020, Goldsworthy’s Red Flags now has been recontextualized at Galerie Lelong & Co. along with two new video works in an exhibition open until May 7. The work consists of 50 flags each stained with red earth from a different U.S. state, symbolizing the potential for unity in the common soil lying beneath our internal borders. He explains, “My hope is that these flags will be raised to mark a different kind of defense of the land.” To commemorate Earth Day on April 23rd, Galerie Lelong & Co. will present a talk at the gallery between the artist and Brett Littman, director of the Isamu Noguchi Foundation and curator of Frieze Sculpture 2020.

At Haines Gallery in San Francisco through May 28, Goldsworthy’s new solo exhibition Firehouse directly addresses the precarious environmental situation in California. By coating the Fort Mason firehouse’s massive windows in a thin layer of red clay, the artist invokes the red-orange glow of the wildfires threatening the very California mountains from which some of the clay was collected. In addition to a gradually-cracking wall of white clay, the exhibition’s other centerpiece is a long table displaying the charred remains of Goldsworthy’s San Francisco Presidio Spire, which partially burned in 2020.

Haines describes the process of realizing Firehouse, “He came here to plan for his exhibition, and I don’t think either one of us had an exhibition before where we really didn’t know what the product would be. So in walking around campus—and the two of us are actually quite dangerous together because we immediately look for all opportunities and will take on any project with little notice—we found this firehouse. I went to the management of Fort Mason and said, ‘Can we do something in here?’ and they said, ‘Yes, but you only have it for twelve days.’

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Installation views: Andy Goldsworthy, Firehouse, 2022, Haines Gallery, San Francisco. Photo: Robert Divers Herrick

So we amassed a small army and scaffolding, and he decided he wanted to experiment with this red clay that had been collected from all 50 states, the same clay that’s in the flags project in New York…We are living in a firehouse in his words, right now, not just with the drought and the fire dangers here in California, but what’s happening in Ukraine, and that globally, we are under siege, as people.”

Haines first started working with Goldsworthy nearly 30 years ago, as she told us, “I wrote to him in the UK and invited him to come and do a project with me. Because I was a young gallerist, he put together some pretty stringent requirements that I was fortunately able to fulfill, so he came here with his wife and two daughters. I was part of the team getting my hands dirty building the clay wall when I first opened my old gallery space back in ‘94. Because it was his first clay wall we really didn’t know what to expect, and we wanted to attach it without any substructure, so we were instructed to put plywood on the back wall and to collect as much human hair as we possibly could to mix into the clay so that could be the binding agent. So I involved my hairdresser and every other hairdresser in a 10-block radius to collect hair, and I went around with one of his books under my arm collecting hair from these salons for weeks. There was a team of five or six of us and we built the wall in four or five days, around the clock, and it’s still there.”

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Installation view: Andy Goldsworthy, Firehouse, 2022, Haines Gallery, San Francisco. Photo: Robert Divers Herrick
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Installation view: Andy Goldsworthy, Red Flags, 2020, Galerie Lelong & Co., New York.

Mary Sabbatino explains, “Each project has its own energy, its own challenges, and its own emotions and when finished, the quality of a stunning transformation. During the process of bringing these complex works to life—a process that can take several years—we develop deep relationships with many of the commissioning collectors or museum colleagues. Two stand out: a commission involving six different works for a private collection in Ohio and Goldsworthy’s commission for the Museum of Jewish Heritage. The Ohio project was the most ambitious and of the longest duration we had ever coordinated. Goldsworthy made one of his most subtle works, Contour 950–a level path that reveals a wide variety of landscapes over a two-mile length.”

The project at the Museum of Jewish Heritage was a memorial to the Holocaust, says Sabbatino, “Goldsworthy’s proposal for Garden of Stones was 18 stone boulders planted with dwarf oak trees that would eventually send out acorns for new trees elsewhere. The museum is located at Battery Park and during our first site visit in Spring 2002, the trauma of the destruction of the Twin Towers was everywhere downtown. At the time of dedication in 2003, there were still a number of Holocaust survivors alive who were connected with the museum. They and their children and grandchildren planted the saplings, a beautiful metaphor of trauma transformed to life, but I have always wondered if the ashes of those who perished in the Towers somehow found their way to regeneration in the soil of these trees and have also sent out seeds of new life elsewhere.”

And isn’t that the core of what an environmentally focused practice is all about? Spreading seeds and generating a vision for hope.